Fear of Flying

March 13th, 2013

2004..somewhere in England…

“I hate flying. Know why? Because no one really understands how planes actually work.” Adam Levine.

I used to love flying.  From about the age of 10 until I was about 45, I’d hop on anything, I didn’t care.  I could be on a big plane, small plane, private, commercial, helicopter or whatever and I don’t remember a lot of trauma doing any of it.  In 1999, that all changed.

I was on one of those flights that no one should have been on.   My friend Reba and I were heading to London, from Omaha, through Chicago.  It was February, usually a pretty dicey month to fly, a blizzard had started and the plane was delayed for several hours.  So, instead of just walking out of the airport and waiting for it all to pass, when they finally called the flight, I got on.    It was one of the least intelligent decisions I’ve made in my 56 years.   I’ll keep this simple.  It was horrible.  Coming close to Chicago, we hit what they call a “microburst”.  Here’s what they say about flying into one of those…

microburst is a very localized column of sinking air, producing damaging divergent and straight line winds at the surface that are similar to, but distinguishable from tornadoes,  which generally have convergent damage. There are two types of microbursts: wet microbursts and dry microbursts. They go through three stages in their life cycle: the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages. The scale and suddenness of a microburst makes it a great danger to aircraft due to the low-level wind shear caused by its gusts with several fatal crashes having been attributed to the phenomenon over the past several decades.”

I never actually read that until today.  I wonder what the pilot was thinking and more than that,  I wonder what I was thinking.  We never made it to Chicago.  We landed sort of sideways outside of Madison, Wisconsin, so relieved to land alive that we ended up in a hotel bar, drinking with a one armed Mount Everest climber and a Sherpa.  I didn’t make that up, that’s what we did.  You do weird things when you think it might be over for you.

Another series of events happened, including a seriously dodgy landing in an Aspen snowstorm, various thunderstorms, and the death of two people I knew well in separate small plane crashes over 18 months, and I’ve had the fear ever since.  It’s a fear that’s become rather legendary among my family, friends, doctors, therapists, and colleagues, as it not only frustrates me, it frustrates the hell out of some of them.  So, I’ve compiled a list of some of the helpful hints ,comments, and treatment options they’ve given me over the years. Some of them don’t work that well for me, but some are kind of interesting.  Here are a few..

1) The “Just Try Every Type of  Therapy Invented” approach- If you can name it, I’ve tried it.  Talk therapy, post trauma therapy, somatic therapy, EMDR therapy (that’s where you relive the trauma…works for some things, but..), group therapy, anti anxiety pills, hypnosis, biofeedback…are you tired of this yet?  I was.

2) The “Henry Corra Drunk Dialing from Planes” method- my friend, film maker Henry Corra,  flies a lot.  He no longer drinks, but when he did, I’d get these calls on the air phones from him when he was full of Bourbon or some other brown liquid. He’d just drink and call people.  Generally, there was the inevitable flight attendant interrupting to tell him to shut the hell up, but they were interesting calls.  I thought about that, but I only drink when I’m happy, or if I’ve landed successfully after a bad flight. (see below).

3) The “Avoid Any News Story about Flying” method-  I’ve tried that too, but it never works. Perhaps my fear draws me to stories, but I never fail to accidentally land on stories describing crazy passengers, crazier flight attendants, and even crazier pilot stories (drunk pilots, pilots having breakdowns mid flight).  The new one is how the “sequester budget cuts” is going to take a big bite out of air traffic controllers. Holy shit…

4) The “Old Boyfriend Tough Love” suggestion-  So, I was telling an old friend about my fear of an upcoming flight a few years back.  He wrote me this beautiful story about fear and life and love and taking chances.  It was so sweet I almost cried until I read the last line of the story…  “Get on the f**#ing airplane”.

5) The “Driving Miss Cindy” way-   This one was invented by two young friends, Courtney and Jeremy, who used to work for me.  Yes, it has happened.  I’ve chosen to ask some poor soul to drive me across the country a number of times.   I remain eternally grateful to those poor souls….seriously, even when it was fun, it was a long way to go.

6)  The “Lee Hirsch” method-  This was one of my favorites.  Since making “Bully”, Lee has logged more air hours than just about anyone, short of the former Secretary of State.  He should check out her numbers, he might have more.   He’d say, “I’ll fly to Sioux City and go with you.” Or “just take a Xanax”. “I have Lee”, I’ll tell him, “sometimes  it doesn’t help”.  His solution, “Take TWO!”  He’s a trooper.

7) The Doctor One, Doctor Two, Doctor Three… action plans.  The legions of nice doctors over the years have recommended everything from pills to doing it gradually-short flights, one at a time, to going to one of those airline “fear of flying classes.”   That’s a fairly new suggestion. They actually have those, look it up.

8) The “Air Ted”  and “Air Norm” or just simply “WaittAir” occasional option, only available for special occasions, which makes sense.  My brother, “Dr.” Ted, put forth this theory, “It’s a control issue.  You know that if you start to freak out, I can tell the pilot to land the plane”.  He’s not only right, but one of my doctors actually agreed with him. Ted, go back to school, you have a future in this.  These two options are my favorite air lines and not just because they spoil you (they do), but because I know how well maintained they are and I know who’s flying them. However, I still have trouble on some of those flights too.  For instance, flying into Aspen (do not fly into Aspen, particularly in a snowstorm when you can’t see the airport).    I think I owe them each probably about half a million dollars for flights, and I’m not worth that much, so I can’t pay them back.

9) The Affirmation method. Don’t you love it when someone actually gets what you are going through?  Henry Corra again, “Cindy, it’s a completely rational fear.  You are 30,000 miles up in a metal tube”.  Yes.

10)  My all time favorite from the doctor who has spent the most time with me, ‘THE JUST DON’T FLY” solution.   He’s the one that always says, “why suffer?”.  Love that guy.


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